Last year, Chobani got a new logo. Since the yogurt company was founded in 2005, it had used an angular sans serif font called Broadband to adorn its plastic cups. The font was designed in 1991 at the height of the first internet boom, which made its geometric, no-nonsense demeanor perfect for the low-resolution, low-legibility screens of the time. In 2005, though, it was a weird choice, especially for a yogurt. “It didn’t make sense emotionally,” says Leland Maschmeyer.
Maschmeyer, who co-founded the branding consultancy Collins, joined Chobani as its new chief creative officer in 2016 and got to work on a new identity. He replaced Broadband with a chubby typeface developed by Commercial Type that was meant to evoke the hand-drawn lettering out of a fairytale book. During the design process, Maschmeyer and his team had fallen in love with folk art; more specifically, they were smitten with the handmade quality of quilted craftwork from New England. “We liked the natural organic forms,” he says. “It was charmingly imperfect.”
It turned out that most people agreed—the internet loved the new Chobani. Armin Vit, who runs the website Brand New, wrote that the identity was “literally and absolutely perfect not just in execution but in representing the product.” According to Maschmeyer, an online poll showed 94 percent of people liked it. Four percent were neutral.
The fervor around Chobani’s rebrand was unexpected; yogurt is yogurt, after all. But it was surprising for another reason, too. Chobani’s new identity felt like a small, but significant shift in the aesthetic landscape towards something a little softer and kinder. (“Someone told me that our logo looked like a hug,” Maschmeyer says.) At the very least, it looked at odds with the wave of staid sans-serif logos that suddenly felt like they were everywhere.
The logos, which seem to have been birthed from a lovechild of Helvetica and Futura, are all geometric vowels and sharp corners, tweaked just enough to make each feel slightly different from the next.
Did Chobani’s redesign signal the end of a new trend and the beginning of another? After years of seeing some variation of the same minimalist logo again, and again, and again, could we be on the cusp of a new trend that, given enough time, we’ll eventually loathe just as much? Vit seems to think so. “Anything that stands against the trend of minimalism is the new trend,” he says. “It’s wide open and stands under the category of ‘Fuck it, let’s try something else.’”
For the last few years, consumer-oriented graphic design has been driven by a very particular aesthetic—one that’s more like a poke than a hug. You know the one: sans serif type, monochromatic color schemes, flat photography. For a certain kind of business (new, internet native, good at Instagram) the look was almost non-negotiable. “We’ve landed on a slightly homogeneous series of things that have been pushed out into the world lately,” admits Benjamin Critton, a graphic designer in Los Angeles who helped develop the sharp blue identity for clothing brand Outdoor Voices in 2014.
Outdoor Voices gained traction around the same time as a handful of other direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane, Glossier, and Thinx, all of which boast the different-yet-similar stripped down look of the millennial-focused startup. The logos, which seem to have been birthed from a lovechild of Helvetica and Futura, are all geometric vowels and sharp corners, tweaked just enough to make each feel slightly different from the next. The trend is well documented. So well documented, in fact, that there’s been something of a backlash lately.
“We’ve been presenting this issue to clients,” says Jesse Reed, who with Hamish Symth started the design studio Order in 2017. “We tell them if they go this route of sans-serif typography and pastel color palette, they’ll get lost in the landscape of startup companies.” Now when they meet with new clients, Reed and Smyth will pull up a slideshow highlighting a constellation of vaguely similar logos and website layouts. It’s a way to help their clients take stock of the current landscape, which in recent years has coalesced, more or less, around an agreed-upon look of muted colors, still life photography, and yes, geometric sans serif fonts.
It’s easy to get annoyed with brands who play visual follow-the-leader, but the reality is that minimalism as a sweeping trend dates back decades. “This form of working, which harkens back to modernism from the ’50s and ’60s, has been around forever,” says Pentagram partner Paula Scher, whose recent work for Korean skincare line Dr. Jart uses many of the same broad-strokes visual cues seen across contemporary beauty packaging.
Scher and her team custom designed the curved plastic bottles, which she claims is the hallmark of the product—not the typeface that’s on them. They added a wordmark in Helvetica as well as a hit of yellow to brighten it up and make it feel modern. Under the flattening effect of Instagram, it’s hard to deny its familiarity to brands like Glossier. But Scher, who has inspired plenty of trends herself, says they approached the work in the same way they’d approach anything: By trying to solve a problem for the client. “[Modernism] is a method, and it was the right method for this packaging,” she insists.
“I think in the next two or three years, we’re going to see a logo for the next startup app for parking your car looking a lot like Chobani,” says Vit.
Right or wrong, the boring truth is that visual trends are inevitable. Humans flock to familiarity, and businesses, who are footing the bill for branding, like their humans (ahem, customers) to be happy. This leads to an endless feedback loop where well-received designed choices for one brand get co-opted by another who is looking to replicate that same success. “That’s how you get more of the same,” says Vit. “And then you get tired of it.”
Every trend has a tipping point, right after it goes mainstream and just before it jumps the shark, Vit explains. With millennial minimalism, the tipping point was Airbnb, which replaced its bubbly cursive wordmark with a stark, coral alternative in 2014. By the time Google followed with a geometric rebrand a year later, the trend was in full bloom and about to wither.
Currently, the pendulum is on its long swing backwards, the fruits of which we’re seeing now. Hints of Chobani’s subtle grooviness can be found in other logos like Medium’s 2017 rebrand and The Guardian‘s new logo. Eventually, Vit believes this trend, like all trends that came before it, will grow tired. It’s the natural life cycle of graphic design. “I think in the next two or three years, we’re going to see a logo for the next startup app for parking your car looking a lot like Chobani,” he says.
If trends are inevitable, then they at least exist for a reason—be it to establish a new category of product, to give credence to legitimately good design decision, or to pay homage to long-standing design history. They’re cyclical, like fashion, and can ride to the top on a personal whim or surface from a deeper-seated truth.
Simplicity, while a useful tool in many cases, can be just as inscrutable as a bombastic graphical mess.
For Maschmeyer, the most meaningful trends are a reflection of what’s going on in the world at any particular moment. “I think graphic expression is an expression of a deeper desire trying to find a voice in the world,” he says. At its best, graphic design is merely reflecting the sentiments that culture at large is already feeling.
What, then, does the rise of this very specific form of minimalism—pastel backdrops, flat photography, sans-serif fonts—say to the armchair psychologist? The most generous interpretation is that it’s a signal of what we don’t want the world to be: Chaotic, messy, uncertain. Meanwhile, we’re meant to believe the opposite of those adjectives—ordered, tidy, assured—are something to strive towards. Of course, anything in excess is bad. And simplicity, while a useful tool in many cases, can be just as inscrutable as a bombastic graphical mess.
Companies are starting to notice that visual consensus only works when it has something new to say. The shift that we’re starting to experience is just as much a reaction to over-exposure as it is a genuine reflection of the world today. While the rise of the web and its onslaught of information demanded a sort of visual clarity that could cut through the noise and prod us towards easy decision-making (namely, buying stuff), things have changed dramatically over the past couple of years.
Today, information can be wielded like a weapon. The sheer amount of it has made people crave a comforting reprieve, says Maschmeyer. “I think what happened is that a lot of the complexity has turned to fear,” he says. “There’s so much in life to be fearful of and skeptical of, and it’s hard to find things to be excited and optimistic about.”
A softer, more human typeface isn’t going to change that, which Maschmeyer readily admits. But if graphic design is just another lens onto the world, it’s at the very least a telling bellwether for what’s to come.